Dayna & Thomas' Story
It began with a brilliant Burmese little boy on an enormous bike and a rumpled paper sign tacked to an old tree.
We met Gaga on a dirt road in Bagan just after sunrise on our very first day in town. The plucky entrepreneurial 9 year old, refused to leave our side. He asked us questions about our country and professions. He was curious about everything and very persistent. During our time there, we would end up spending a great deal of time with Gaga. Many an evening he would bike to the same pagoda along a dirt road and we would climb barefoot to the top and sit together watching a sunset as he would play with our SLR camera and drink all the cola we would buy him.
Early one afternoon, we walked along the banks of Irrawaddy River, and Dayna asked him, "What do you want to be when you grow up, Gaga?" He looked towards the glistening water, past the tamarind flakes baking on the beach under the hot sun, and pointed at the giant boats drifting down the river.
“A Nautical Engineer,” he replied.
We were not surprised, he was bright, curious, and clearly a natural tinkerer. And later that day, we happened to bike past a sign for a computer class in New Bagan. We couldn't help but think that this was a serendipitous fit for Gaga.
That evening we were invited to his home for dinner. We brought groceries to his mother and ate with his family. In a humble shanty with an outhouse shared amongst the community, we felt exceptionally fortunate that night to have our first home cooked meal in weeks and to share it with such warm people.
We communicated with his mother through Gaga and his older sister, telling her how bright her son was, how we had seen a sign in town for computer classes and think Gaga should go. And lastly, we would support him to do it.
The offer was respectfully declined for a muddied confluence of reasons, both economic and logistic.
After dinner, Gaga picked up Thomas’ iphone off the table. With a couple of swipes and brief instruction, he got started. Within minutes he was proficient. His sister sat beside Dayna and with a drawing app on her iphone taught me the Burmese alphabet. We soon found out that neither had ever touched a smart phone before, let alone a computer. There, under the shade of night, we sat cross legged at a table, as the glow of the devices lit their young faces.
We were witnessing the miracle of technology and couldn’t help but have a bitter sweet feeling of also witnessing potential untapped.
We said goodbye to Gaga and his sister on our last day in Bagan, giving them school supplies, things to help them towards a better future and ways to contact us back in the States. But we have thought about Gaga ever since we left. We know that the chances are impossibly small both that we will meet again and that Gaga will be able to actualize his dream of becoming an engineer. Constrained by the environment that bore him, he can not get the support he needs to reach his full potential.
He shoulders adult burdens for his family, like worrying about the food on the table and translating on his mother’s behalf.
Though he would have excelled at a computer class for which he had benefactors, there were too many other factors, like transportation, that prevented him from going. After thinking about Gaga's situation, we began to realize that his situation is not strictly the domain of a child in the developing world on a dirt road, but the same thing occurs right in our own backyard in the New York metro area.
So we began to do our research, learn about the backgrounds and needs of our local students. We started to do program building, community organizing and advocacy. And began by building a simple robotics program for 7th and 8th grade students in our local school district.
After training middle school students on mechanics, software development, teamwork, and public speaking abilities, our students have continued on to show more ardor and passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects and have developed softer skills that are also becoming more scarce in our 21st century technology driven economy.
Most of the them can now program a robot, communicate in a team setting, and make eye contact--- we’re betting that constellation of skills will give them a broad landscape of future opportunities that might not otherwise have been available before.
Our hypothesis when we started this was, that given the passion and resources for incubation, the program would take on a self-sustaining life of it's own and that the skills developed would prove the value of the program. That very program is on it's 5th year, now funded by the school board and corporate sponsors and it has germinated a new focus for STEM throughout the district, with a STEM high school academy founded in 2014.
In the process, we have learned a lot. We’ve learned that community is integral to education and when the village stands up and realizes that something is important, we can accomplish spectacular things.
We've learned that the basic needs can not be overlooked, like transportation, language, and food.
We’ve learned that children without limits are smarter than we could have ever imagined. Porvenir is now a growing movement, on the front lines of fighting for the self actualization of every gifted student. And we remain inspired every day by the students that have done incredible things after we ever so slightly leveled the playing field for them.
We fundamentally believe that a day will come in our lifetimes when every child will receive an education that allows them full individual realization and participation in our modern world. And we are committed to work tirelessly towards those ends now and in the future or 'el porvenir'.
We are focused on the future of our kids and the future of a society in which more children have the opportunity to tap their full potential.
¡Hacia el porvenir!